Conference Papers  |    |  February 8, 2020

Robot Rights?: Let’s Talk about Human Welfare Instead

Conference paper by Abeba Birhane and Jelle van Dijk.
Presented at the 2020 AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society.


The ‘robot rights’ debate, and its related question of ‘robot responsibility’, invokes some of the most polarized positions in AI ethics. While some advocate for granting robots rights on a par with human beings, others, in a stark opposition argue that robots are not deserving of rights but are objects that should be our slaves. Grounded in post-Cartesian philosophical foundations, we argue not just to deny robots ‘rights’, but to deny that robots, as artifacts emerging out of and mediating human being, are the kinds of things that could be granted rights in the first place. Once we see robots as mediators of human being, we can understand how the ‘robots rights’ debate is focused on first world problems, at the expense of urgent ethical concerns, such as machine bias, machine elicited human labour exploitation, and erosion of privacy all impacting society’s least privileged individuals. We conclude that, if human being is our starting point and human welfare is the primary concern, the negative impacts emerging from machinic systems, as well as the lack of taking responsibility by people designing, selling and deploying such machines, remains the most pressing ethical discussion in AI.